So far, in terms of football, the Qatar World cup has been a joy to watch. From Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, to Japan defeating Spain and knocking Germany out in the process, it has been an incredible spectacle. The tournament’s stadiums and infrastructure are magnificent, with eight massive stadiums hosting 64 matches over the course of the tournament. However, these stadiums also stand as a stark reminder of the human cost of Qatar hosting this tournament, and its mistreatment and abuse of those who built the infrastructure.
When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup in controversial circumstances (with credible evidence of corruption), it had little to no footballing infrastructure. To build the infrastructure necessary to host the tournament, Qatar turned to temporary migrant workers. These workers predominately came from countries in South Asia, such as India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The number of migrant workers in Qatar has surged dramatically since the early 2000s, to the point where they now make up 80% of Qatar’s population. These workers have helped to transform the oil-rich Qatar into a well-developed country with state-of-the-art infrastructure.
To find the workers required, Qatar used international recruitment agencies. These recruitment agencies promised jobs that were paid well, and that promotions and other benefits would come with them. The opportunity for social mobility and to work on a famous project was extremely alluring to people in some of the poorest countries in the world. The recruitment agencies would subsequently make the prospective worker pay extortionate and illegal recruitment fees, with the worker also made to pay for flights, visas, and medical tests. Many workers and their families were often left in serious debt just to secure a job contract and travel to Qatar in the first place.
When migrant workers arrive in Qatar, they enter the ‘Kafala System.’ The Kafala System legally links a migrant worker's immigration status to their employer. Under this system, the employer has control over when or if the worker can change jobs, when or if the worker can enter or exit the country, and they have control over whether the worker can renew their work visa or permit. This creates a substantial power imbalance between the worker and the employer. Even when a worker wants to escape an abusive and dangerous work environment, they are often forced to stay under the restrictive nature of the Kafala system. Many workers have reported having their passports seized by employers upon arrival in Qatar.
Thousands of migrant workers faced varying forms of abuse while constructing the eight stadiums required for the tournament. At all eight stadiums, workers faced nationality-based discrimination, with workers from Asia and Africa often given the most difficult and dangerous jobs for the least amount of pay. Physical violence against migrant workers was reported at the Al Bayt, Education City and Lusail Stadiums, with verbal threats and a culture of fear present at most of the stadiums. Migrant workers also described how they were made to work in excessive heat, cold and dust and through the Covid-19 pandemic, often having to work 14 hour days. Wage theft was also widely reported, with many workers reporting that they received lower wages and benefits than promised and often had to work overtime without compensation. In a report by the Guardian, it was revealed that over 6,500 migrant workers had died since Qatar won the rights to the World Cup in 2010, with many deaths coming from acute heart or respiratory failure, likely caused by the heat stress and a lack of shelter workers faced.
After significant pressure from human rights organisations, and a complaint that made its way to the United Nation’s International Labour Office, Qatar has taken steps to improve working conditions in the country, including passing laws allowing workers to change jobs without the permission of their employer, and establishing a national monthly minimum wage. However, enforcement of this legislation has not been widespread, and migrant workers have continued to report abuse, with the same restrictions placed on workers and their rights. Conditions on the ground do not appear to have changed, and rigorous implementation of the existing labour reforms is necessary.
For many migrant workers, it is simply too little, too late. Millions around the world will continue to watch the tournament as it progresses, and there is little doubt that there will be more twists and turns in what has proved to be an entertaining tournament on the pitch. However, the treatment of migrant workers has cast a long shadow over the tournament. The human cost of this years World Cup will continue to be felt for many years after the final on the 18th of December, particularly by families in some of the poorest parts of the world who have lost loved ones.